Decades of resentment in Northern Ireland, ignored by Westminster, finally resulted in 1969 in what are known euphemistically as ‘the Troubles’. Almost three decades of violence followed, with the loss of more than 3500 lives. Operation Banner, the longest continuous deployment by the British army, did not secure peace any more than its counterinsurgency campaigns before and since. Far from it. Intelligence played a part, as Thomas Leahy convincingly sets out, but a far from decisive one.
The British public, only intermittently aroused by dramatic events such as Bloody Sunday or the assassination of Lord Mountbatten in 1979, didn’t think much about Northern Ireland. Successive governments played with the idea of an ‘acceptable level of violence’. Some attacks in England, such as the Brighton bomb that came close to killing Margaret Thatcher, or the bombs that killed two of her closest parliamentary aides, Airey Neave and Ian Gow, provoked momentary outrage, as did those that killed guardsmen and their horses in the royal parks. A missile fired from a truck and narrowly missing John Major’s cabinet in Downing Street was met with astonishment as much as alarm. The IRA had come to learn that one bomb in London had more impact than ten in Northern Ireland. Yet since it concentrated on commercial targets in the City, where its attacks had serious financial implications, the public response was little more than irritation.
Abuses and violent anarchy in Northern Ireland were accepted by the rest of the UK. A Daily Telegraph poll in 1975 found that 64 per cent of people in England, Scotland and Wales wanted Britain to withdraw from Northern Ireland. Agencies of the British state covered up atrocities, having apparently learned nothing from the colonial conflicts in Malaya, Kenya and elsewhere. Internment without trial was a spectacular own goal, and was recognised as such by senior military figures, who nonetheless went along with the demands of their political masters.
When the army was deployed to Northern Ireland in 1969, it was, as Leahy puts it, ‘blind in intelligence terms’, having to rely on the RUC Special Branch. And the RUC, not welcome in working-class nationalist areas of Belfast and Derry, was starved of intelligence-gathering opportunities. MI5 – preoccupied with ‘subversion’ from ‘domestic enemies’, and targeting such groups as the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty), CND and union leaders – was slow to appreciate the real threats to national security from Northern Ireland, as both Stephen Lander (the head of the agency from 1996 to 2002) and his successor, Eliza Manningham-Buller, admitted when I interviewed them many years later. Though a senior MI5 officer took on the role of director and co-ordinator of intelligence in 1972, the RUC officially retained ‘intelligence primacy’. The army set up its own intelligence-gathering channels. The RUC was loyal to Stormont, Leahy points out, while the army and MI5 were loyal to Westminster. The SAS had its own aggressive tactics. None of these services was held accountable as rivalry deepened and the number of agents and informers proliferated. They found it relatively easy to infiltrate the IRA at first, in part because of its unified structure and lack of discipline. I’ve been told that bomb-makers couldn’t resist calling each other on open phone lines to celebrate a successful attack. Soon enough, however, the IRA improved its counter-intelligence, learning to organise a cell structure and to avoid bugging and surveillance operations (though not always successfully).
As the ‘intelligence war’ escalated, it was left to officers from MI6, in particular Michael Oatley, to find a more constructive approach, and he conducted secret back-channel talks with Catholic priests, the Derry businessman Brendan Duddy, and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin. After Mountbatten’s murder in August 1979 and the killing, hours later, of 18 soldiers at Warrenpoint – the army’s heaviest single loss in Northern Ireland – Thatcher asked Maurice Oldfield, the recently retired head of MI6, to bang heads together. A year later he became the victim of a smear campaign by elements in the security apparatus who resented what they regarded as his meddling. Summoned back to London, Oldfield admitted to having engaged in ‘homosexual activities’. He was stripped of his security clearance though exonerated of having compromised security.
In 1984 John Stalker, the deputy chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, was tasked with investigating ‘shoot to kill’ allegations: in other words, whether there was a deliberate policy of killing unarmed IRA members rather than arresting them. The RUC and MI5 were desperate to prevent Stalker from gathering evidence about the part they had played in the shooting of Michael Tighe, a 17-year-old with no paramilitary connections, in a hay shed in Lurgan where MI5 had installed a bug. Sir John Hermon, the RUC chief constable, warned Stalker he had entered ‘a jungle’. Stalker was suspended in 1986 amid unfounded allegations that he had been involved with shady businessmen in Manchester. ‘I do not doubt,’ Stalker wrote in his autobiography, after he had been exonerated, ‘that my discovery of the existence of the MI5 tape of the killing of Tighe in the hay shed, and my pursuit of it, created very real anxiety. I was breaking new ground in my demands for access, and anti-terrorist operators within MI5 and the Special Branch were bitterly unhappy about even speaking to me.’ Leahy notes: ‘Stalker was replaced in June 1986 in controversial circumstances. The crucial point here is that there were a variety of intelligence sources available in the early 1980s on which to base ambushes of Republicans in North Armagh.’
There were indeed. A dearth of intelligence sources had become a surfeit, with agencies falling over one another in their scramble to target members of the IRA and leading Republicans. Aided and abetted by informers, the RUC Special Branch, the SAS, the British army’s undercover Force Research Unit (FRU) and MI5 ambushed, tortured and murdered people, in operations condemned by the European Court of Human Rights. The IRA meanwhile kneecapped and executed those they suspected of being informers for the British state.
Captain Robert Nairac, a member of the army’s undercover 14 Intelligence Company, apparently frustrated with the lack of information he was getting from the RUC, decided to go to a pub in South Armagh one Saturday night in 1977, a pistol hidden in his clothes, in an ill-advised attempt at freelance intelligence-gathering. He got involved in a confrontation in the pub’s car park. His body has never been found. ‘Details about his activities are shrouded in mystery,’ Leahy writes.
No great mystery surrounds most of the events in Northern Ireland’s dirty war that have since come to light, but Leahy seems reluctant to pursue them. For him, the ‘intelligence war’ essentially means the infiltration of the IRA, not the abuse of intelligence by agents of the British state who colluded with loyalist paramilitaries in attacks on republicans. He doesn’t mention Gary Haggarty, a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force and a paid police supergrass, jailed for six and a half years in January 2018 after admitting to more than two hundred crimes over a sixteen-year period, including five murders, 23 counts of conspiracy to murder, and numerous counts of arson, kidnapping and assault. Haggarty was released in May 2018, after four months’ imprisonment.
Leahy picks out the case of Denis Donaldson, a member of Sinn Féin who was recruited as an informer by the RUC Special Branch. He was arrested in 2002 by the PSNI (which had replaced the RUC the year before) for suspected involvement in a spy ring at Stormont. Charges against him were suddenly dropped three years later and he was subsequently warned by the police that his life was in danger. He was killed in 2006 at his cottage in Donegal by dissident IRA members. Either the police who arrested him had no idea he was a Special Branch informer, or his handlers decided he no longer merited protection because he did not tell them everything he was up to with Sinn Féin. Leahy does not seek to ask, let alone answer, such questions, concluding that Donaldson’s importance has been exaggerated. He had ‘extremely limited access to the IRA’, Leahy says, and was ‘outside the group of leading Republican strategists’.
Two informers stand out: Brian Nelson and the agent known as ‘Stakeknife’ (his identity has never been verified, but is suspected to be Freddie Scappaticci). Both were recruited by the FRU: Nelson to infiltrate the Ulster Defence Association, Stakeknife to infiltrate the IRA. In both cases, British intelligence agencies and the Ministry of Defence tried their utmost to cover up their activities. Nelson was eventually exposed by the Stevens Inquiries into collusion between British agencies and loyalist paramilitaries, despite attempts by both the army and police to obstruct the investigations, even burning evidence that John Stevens and his team had gathered.
Nelson was a two-way conduit between the British security services and the UDA, passing information on potential targets to the paramilitaries. Pat Finucane, a prominent Catholic solicitor who represented Republicans, was murdered in February 1989, shot fourteen times in front of his wife and children. Ken Barrett, a member of the UDA, was convicted of killing Finucane, but released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Nelson claimed he had warned his army handlers of the UDA’s plans to murder the solicitor. Finucane was given no warning. Nelson later pleaded guilty to twenty charges, including five of conspiracy to murder, and was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. A number of other charges, including two counts of murder, were dropped in a plea bargain. In 2019, the UK Supreme Court ruled that an official investigation by Desmond de Silva in 2011 had been frustrated by de Silva’s inability to compel witnesses to testify about the killing. David Cameron reneged on a government promise to set up an inquiry into Finucane’s murder.
Stakeknife, who for 25 years was paid £80,000 a year by the British government, commanded the IRA’s internal security unit, known as the ‘nutting squad’, whose task was to identify and kill suspected informers. His existence was first exposed by whistleblowers in army intelligence. Scappaticci was arrested in 2018 on suspicion of murder, torture and kidnapping by detectives investigating British intelligence handlers. He denied that he was Stakeknife, or had been involved in any of the offences, and was released on bail. Leahy refers to a British army source who credited Stakeknife with saving 180 lives; Stakeknife is also alleged to have killed at least fifteen suspected IRA informers whose lives he could have saved.
The case goes to the heart of the ethical dilemma facing intelligence agencies: how far should they allow their informers to go in order to protect their secret role? Patrick Walker, the senior MI5 officer in Northern Ireland (later appointed head of the agency) drew up a report in 1980 instructing the RUC to place spying ahead of solving crimes. The Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which hears cases brought against the security and intelligence agencies, confirmed in 2019 that MI5 had drawn up guidelines that would allow their officers to make representations to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, arguing that bringing criminal charges against their informers would not be in the public interest.
The sanctioning of killings by British intelligence agencies in order to preserve their informers is surely a better subject for a ‘fierce debate’ than the extent to which infiltration of the IRA helped bring Sinn Féin to the negotiating table. Leahy comments only that ‘investigations into the activities of agents and informers such as Stakeknife or Brian Nelson … illustrate the difficult legacy the intelligence war has left to the UK state following the Troubles.’
Leahy’s central thesis is that the importance of British informers in the IRA has been exaggerated: ‘The intelligence war does not seem to have significantly influenced the Republican leadership’s decision to go for peace.’ He goes on to conclude that the importance of Stakeknife and other British informers in the IRA, in Belfast and Derry City in particular, has also been overestimated. Leahy carried out research into the activities of the IRA outside the two cities, delving into their operations in border and cross-border areas, notably in South Armagh, from where IRA members plotted and carried out attacks in England, and states with some confidence that his book, ‘by its “presentation of local detail” outside Belfast, has “punctured general assumptions” about the success of the intelligence against the war against the IRA’.
‘The impact of the British intelligence war on the Provisional IRA has become the subject of fierce debate,’ Leahy writes. Most academic and journalistic accounts, he says, take the line that the British won that war. In Securing Freedom, the book based on her 2011 Reith Lectures, Manningham-Buller says that the Provisional IRA ‘decided, partly as a result of intelligence successes against them, that pursuing a parallel policy of terrorism and politics, the Armalite and the ballot box, was outdated and it dropped the gun’. Leahy, however, argues persuasively that the IRA was not facing terminal decline by the 1990s and the British state did not ‘win’ the intelligence conflict. This isn’t a controversial conclusion. It has been widely recognised for some time that a combination of political, security, strategic and tactical operational reasons finally brought all sides to the negotiating table, at first tentatively under John Major’s government, then by Tony Blair.
‘Various factors’, Leahy writes (one of his favourite phrases), contributed to the IRA’s decision to call ceasefires in 1994 and then in 1997 after the New Labour and Fianna Fáil governments in London and Dublin dropped their demands for weapons to be decommissioned before talks began. A ‘crucial’ factor, Leahy adds, ‘was that the IRA lacked a majority of support from nationalists across Ireland’. It was the Irish people who gradually encouraged the shift in the direction of peace, while the Republican movement learned that it needed political support in order to extract concessions from the British state. Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, who played a key role in the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement, makes the point in Talking to Terrorists that Sinn Féin’s growing electoral mandate helped the British government to argue the case for a settlement. It also greatly helped the Irish government.
I have lost count of the number of times that generals, intelligence chiefs and leaders of political parties of every persuasion (including Sinn Féin) have argued that conflicts cannot be resolved by military means alone. And they cannot be resolved by intelligence alone – they certainly weren’t in Northern Ireland, as Leahy demonstrates. The Northern Ireland secretary Peter Brooke stated publicly in 1989 that British forces could not militarily defeat the IRA. But, as Leahy says, the British government had realised that by 1972. All sides had dug themselves into a stalemate, though it wasn’t until 1995 that Martin McGuinness said publicly that a ‘military stalemate’ meant, as far as all sides were concerned, there was nowhere to go but to the negotiating table. Further evidence that public opinion in Britain was getting increasingly tired of the conflict was the relief that accompanied the Good Friday Agreement. Army chiefs also wanted a way out. Intelligence agencies were probably the only group to suffer withdrawal symptoms.
More than once at the end of his book Leahy says that more research is needed, particularly into the extent to which republican opinion on an ‘unarmed strategy’ was canvassed before the Good Friday Agreement, and just ‘how vital rural units were to the IRA’s campaign’ in earlier years. As for the ‘intelligence war’ in Northern Ireland, the ‘full details’ have not been revealed and ‘probably never will be’. The IRA will want to keep its secrets. MI5 files are either withheld indefinitely or censored before they are passed to the National Archives at Kew. MI6 does not release its post-1945 files. When Thatcher and Major expressed concern about a planned history of the Intelligence Corps and what it had been up to in Northern Ireland, the Ministry of Defence told them not to worry: any reference to Northern Ireland would be ‘particularly anodyne’. The MoD’s comment is included in an official file released at Kew.
As Northern Ireland settled down to relative peace and stability after the Good Friday Agreement, Britain faced a new terrorist threat from a very different source, Islamic extremism. MI5 was slow to recognise this, too, though when it did catch up it foiled a growing number of plots. But its task was made more difficult by the influence of senior MI6 officers, whose predecessors had been so cautious in Northern Ireland, in encouraging Blair to join the disastrous US-led invasion of Iraq. The British army abused suspected insurgents in Iraq as they had earlier mistreated detainees in Northern Ireland, and ill-prepared troops were led, as they had been in Northern Ireland, by commanders armed with weapons but little or no intelligence about the complex networks of loyalties in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
The legacy of the Northern Ireland conflict is not going away. In 2016, Operation Kenova was set up, headed by Jon Boutcher, a former chief constable of Bedfordshire. Its task is to investigate ‘whether there is evidence of the commission of criminal offences by the alleged agent [Stakeknife], including but not limited to murders, attempted murders or unlawful imprisonments’. The investigation will also, according to its terms of reference, look into ‘whether there is evidence of criminal offences having been committed by members of the British army, the Security Services or other government personnel’. One historian mentioned by Leahy who may be taking a particular interest in the inquiry is John Bew, now Boris Johnson’s adviser on defence and security policy.